OVER THE PAST WEEK, the titillating story of a president in crisis has far outpaced the substantiated facts. What is known is that the Whitewater special prosecutor is investigating allegations that a young woman who worked as an unpaid White House intern had a sexual relationship with President Clinton and was asked to lie about it. This gives rise to legitimate questions, along with sordid speculation.
The speculation includes a melange of indiscretions, most of which are unconfirmed. These reports come in an atmosphere in which competition fuels the pressure to advance a story that has moved only incrementally since it broke early last week.
It is not surprising that the story is getting so much attention. No longer does the press take a hands-off approach toward allegations of marital infidelity by presidents. Polls show the public wants to know the details, often for prurient reasons.
Hordes of reporters are chasing the story. Television networks, magazines, major newspapers and all-news cable channels are scrambling for scoops. So is the gallery of World Wide Web sites, many of them willing to publicize rumors and innuendo without much effort to distinguish them from substantiated facts.
Unlike previous presidential scandals, this one is being driven by an emerging medium that can make a news reporter of anyone. Matt Drudge, who was working at a Los Angeles gift shop less than three years ago, operates a Web site masquerading as journalism. Mr. Drudge culls some of his information on the Clinton scandal from newspapers and wire services, but other tidbits are coming from unsubstantiated electronic mail.
Some members of the traditional press have stumbled, too, by failing to verify their information. The Dallas Morning News withdrew a story published in its early edition yesterday reporting that a Secret Service agent was ready to testify he saw the president and Monica Lewinsky in a compromising position. It turned out to be inaccurate. But that didn't stop other news organizations from spreading the story before the newspaper could pull it.
Newsweek magazine, on the other hand, deserves credit for holding the Lewinsky story for a week because it lacked independent evidence of allegations that Mr. Clinton and his friend Vernon Jordan obstructed justice.
The public knows that tabloids and some Internet sites are not reliable in reporting this national story. That puts even more pressure on the nation's daily newspapers and television networks to verify -- and re-verify -- their facts before running with them.
Pub Date: 1/28/98